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Armed staff policy at Butler County school district illegal, Ohio Supreme Court says

Published: Jun. 23, 2021 at 10:04 AM EDT|Updated: Jun. 23, 2021 at 2:55 PM EDT
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CINCINNATI (FOX19) - A southwestern Ohio school district’s controversial policy allowing 10 teachers and other staff members to carry weapons on campus with just 24 hours of training is illegal, the state’s top court said Wednesday.

Madison Local Schools must follow current state law that requires more extensive training or 20 years peace officer’s experience, the 4-3 decision reads.

Ohio law permits school boards to decide whether to allow teachers and other staff to carry guns into school buildings.

But state lawmakers have mandated that they be well-trained with 728 hours first.

In 2018, in the wake of a shooting at one of its schools in 2016, Madison City Schools in Butler County approved a policy allowing armed staff with 24 hours training, including eight earned at a one-day class to obtain a license to carry a concealed weapon.

RELATED | Madison schools wins lawsuit to arm teachers, other staff | Madison school shooting suspect pleads guilty to attempted murder | VIDEO: ‘We’ve got to do something’ Sheriff greets teachers at gun training

A group of parents sued the district to try to halt the policy, but a Butler County judge upheld it.

The parents then turned to an appeals court, who overturned the lower court decision and ordered the district to require more training hours.

The Ohio Supreme Court upheld the appeals court decision Wednesday, essentially striking the school district’s policy down.

Chief Justice Maureen O’Connor and three Democratic justices agreed for the majority.

Ohio state law “prohibits a school from employing a person who goes armed while on duty in his or her job unless the employee has satisfactorily completed an approved basic peace-officer-training program or has 20 years of experience as a peace officer,” Justice O’Connor wrote.

Two of the three justices who dissented are from the Tri-State, including a former Butler County Domestic Relations Court judge, Sharon Kennedy. She also is a former Hamilton police officer.

The other local justice who dissented is Pat DeWine, a former Cincinnati City Councilman and Hamilton County Commissioner. He also is Gov. Mike DeWine’s son.

DeWine contends the peace-officer training provision in the state law applies only to those employed in a security-related position and does not bar Madison Local from adopting their policy.

Kennedy wrote: “Had the General Assembly intended to condition the authority to carry a firearm in a school safety zone on having the basic police training required of peace officers, it could have written the statute that way. It did not, and ‘a court may not rewrite the plain and unambiguous language of a statute under the guise of statutory interpretation.’”

Parents Erin Gabbard, Aimee Robson, Dallas Robson, Benjamin Tobey and Benjamin Adams sued the district on behalf of themselves and their children shortly after the school board passed the policy.

They are represented by Gupta Wessler LLC of Columbus, Ohio and Everytown for Gun Safety Support Fund.

“Today’s ruling comes as a relief,” Gabbard said in a prepared statement sent out by a spokesman for Everytown.

“Like any parents, we just want our kids to be safe. The Madison school board armed minimally-trained staff, one of whom even failed the accuracy test multiple times. Once this ruling is implemented, parents will at least know that the teachers who carry firearms in our schools are properly trained, as required by state law.”

During the lawsuit, Madison Local School District Board members acknowledged adopting the district’s armed staff and training policies despite no board members having law enforcement qualifications or expertise, and without research or investigation beyond cursory internet searches, Everytown said in the statement.

“Discovery also revealed that the District’s actual practices in screening armed personnel differed sharply from the descriptions that the Board used to sell its policy to the public. In fact, the Board even approved an armed staff person who twice failed the basic shooting qualification test administered during training.”

Numerous groups filed amicus briefs in support of the parents, including two Ohio teachers’ unions, hundreds of Ohio teachers and school staff, law enforcement experts, the cities of Columbus and Cincinnati, professors of education from The Ohio State University College of Education and other Ohio universities, and a legal expert on statutory construction.

“As the Ohio Supreme Court recognized, Ohio law mandates that armed teachers receive extensive training before carrying guns in classrooms, and the FASTER training regime implemented by Madison Local School District was woefully insufficient,” said one of the parents’ attorney, Rachel Bloomekatz.

“Today’s ruling will protect students, teachers, and staff in Ohio from the risks posed by inadequately trained staff carrying guns in school.

“The school district allowed teachers and other staff to go armed at schools with less training than a little league umpire training and less training than a manicurist. What the Ohio Supreme Court requires following the plain letter of the law is that any armed teacher and staff must have more extensive training. That’s important for the safety of all Ohio school kids.”

Madison Local Schools Board President Dave French said in a statement to FOX19 NOW said the district is keeping all its options moving forward open.

“We are disappointed in the split decision issued by the Ohio Supreme Court. We are pleased, however, that Justice Kennedy, Justice Fischer, and Justice DeWine, the Governor (when he was Attorney General), and the current Attorney General agreed that the Madison Local Schools’ Board of Education policy was lawful,” his statement reads.

“The Board has always done, and will continue to do, what is in the best interest of our community. Our primary concern has been and continues to be the safety of our students, and what works for our community may not work for others.

“While this policy has received a substantial amount of attention, it is just one of the many steps that the District has taken to ensure student safety. We are considering and exploring all of our options moving forward, and hope the Ohio General Assembly considers taking action to correct this decision.”

Other school districts in the Tri-State have passed similar rules allowing teachers to be armed, including Blanchester schools in Clinton County and Williamsburg ones in Clermont County.

Two Republican lawmakers including now-former Sen. Bill Coley, R-West Chester, have tried to ease training requirements for school staff.

So far, neither effort has been passed into law.

Rep. Thomas Hall R-Madison Township, introduced a bill earlier this year that is still pending in the Ohio House of Representatives.

“I am very disappointed in this decision. This ruling only underscores the critical and urgent need to get House Bill 99 signed into law. This permissive legislation gives school boards the ability to make enhanced school safety measures by determining additional training requirements, beyond concealed carry permit training, for arming teachers and staff if they chose to do so.

“The Ohio General Assembly has a responsibility to give our school districts the option to protect their students and staff by embracing local control and establishing appropriate baseline training requirements for educators to carry a firearm.”

Butler County Sheriff Richard Jones is one of the biggest advocates for armed staff in schools and Madison’s policy.

He made national headlines in 2018 when he offered free CCW classes for school staff - classes that filled up as fast as the sheriff’s office announced them.

Now he says the Ohio Supreme Court’s decision renders Madison’s policy “dead in the water.”

“Schools in Ohio are less safe now thanks to Justice O’Connor,” said Butler County Sheriff Richard Jones.

“It doesn’t surprise me on the ruling today by Justice O’Connor. She is the reason that schools are less safe in Ohio, because of her vote,” he said. “So when there’s another school shooting, it’s gonna be on her and her vote that made the schools less safe, in my opinion.

“There’s not much you can do now. The ruling is final and I am very disappointed. More so with Justice O’Connor,” Jones said.

“She’s a very liberal justice. She always votes with the other three Democrats. She is voted in as a Republican in name only.”

He lamented the involvement and funding of the litigation from the “take-the-guns-back-liberal-people-from-New-York.”

“It’s people from the outside coming in with their big money lawyers and forcing their anti-gun views on the citizens of this community - and winning. I am so disgusted with Justice O’Connor.”

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